One of the swoon-worthy songs on Toronto band Alvvays' new album is called "Saved By a Waif," though as the group trekked around the globe touring behind their 2014 debut, the song took shape onstage under another name: "New Haircut" (or sometimes just "Haircut"). Fan metrics reveal the band performed it 39 times in 2015 and nearly 20 the following year.
Last week, "Saved By a Waif" finally saw a proper release on Antisocialites, the band's second album on Polyvinyl, and anyone who stacks the live versions up against the new, polished track can tell they're nearly identical. Fortunately for the band, not much needed to be tweaked during recording.
"We show up to studios and the person recording us is expecting way more leeway, but basically the songs, the arrangements are all done when we go to record them," guitarist and co-songwriter Alec O'Hanley told MTV News recently. "We're pop format nerds and love sinking our teeth into that stuff."
That's also what caused the band to delete an entire verse of another new song ("Hey") in the studio, taking it from "slight bloat" to what O'Hanley half-jokingly calls "concise prog." Yes, it sounds silly to label the romantic rock of Alvvays — rounded out by vocalist, guitarist, and co-songwriter Molly Rankin; keyboardist Kerri MacLellan; and bassist Brian Murphy — as anything other than twee dream-pop descended from Teenage Fanclub and Cocteau Twins.
But Antisocialites, recorded primarily at home by the band ("in our basement"), bursts forward with colorful twists and cheeky genre pivots often in a single song. Just listen to "Plimsoll Punks," a sonic résumé for the band that Rankin calls "a bit of an opus," to discover buried melodies mingling with cresting surf guitar and her seesawing, starlike vocals.
Some of the band's potency stems from its lyrics, finalized while Rankin and O'Hanley binged Cartoon Network's Adventure Time, and some lies purely in their drive to write the most succinct, dynamic guitar pop around.
"The process isn't pretty, but hopefully the product is," O'Hanley said. Below, the pair tells MTV News what that process was like.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
MTV News: Did it feel weird to have the entire project looming in your basement the whole time?
Rankin: I couldn’t enjoy myself until we were done with the record. I couldn't sit down and really enjoy a meal or a drink without being like [snaps fingers], we should be out there [working].
O'Hanley: It's tough to demarcate those two worlds. We try to compartmentalize as best we can, but inevitably, you know, one world spills over to another and we just sort of take it on the chin and keep going as best we can.
Rankin: We'll enjoy life once this is all over [laughs].
O'Hanley: Once we're dead! [laughs]
MTV News: Now you have to go on the road with these songs, some of which you've been playing for years already. How did they evolve as you translated them from live cuts to album-ready tracks?
Rankin: The stuff that was more set in stone when we went to the studio was harder to do, I felt like.
O'Hanley: The oldest song [on Antisocialites], "Your Type," went through a few different iterations, and you can definitely glean a lot of info from performing something in front of a crowd, but I think the illusion holds true that they use for theater and movies, the stage and film, where, if you'll indulge me — live things, like theater or performing music, are like using a shotgun, and filming something or documenting a record is like laser needlepoint work. So you may gloss over something in a live context that really doesn't translate in a document. So we had to reconcile that and grapple with that. And I think we got there.
MTV News: Did you ad-lib lyrics in the studio or figure them all out before, or both?
Rankin: I think we had a lot of it done, but we knew the night before that I would basically be doing all of the vocals in one day, or maybe a little bit of the other day, so we sat in front of Adventure Time. It kept us in high spirits as we hashed out what needed to go and what could be rotated in.
O'Hanley: It was us two, Finn, and Jake.
Rankin:: I do really like that show, and it did do a really great job of letting us compromise with each other, and then you'd be like, "Oh, Jake's butt!" That's great.
MTV News: Did they get any writing credits or a thank you in the liner notes?
Rankin: We were kind of thinking, should we do a song for this show? But maybe it's all done. I don't know.
O'Hanley: We'll have to hit up [series creator] Pendleton Ward for that.
MTV News: I think that could work. Your music is extremely colorful, so it could lend itself to animation.
O'Hanley: Yeah, and sometimes you want to go for the cartoon version of a song, you know, or like, what would be the cartoon tone to put in here? Sometimes it's totally ridiculous but sometimes it works.
Rankin: Also, Adventure Time is bright and colorful but also can be so dark, so maybe that's where we live as well.
MTV News: You spent so much time touring between records. Are you able to write on the road or do you keep that process totally separate?
Rankin: No because we're at the level where we're still doing a lot when we travel. We don't have many personnel. We have a tour manager and sound person and that's pretty much it. That's gonna change on this coming tour, we'll have maybe one more person...
O'Hanley: Which adds up to even less space in the van, basically. We don't have a bunk on a bus to ourselves or anything like that.
Rankin: So you're hitting the travelodge at maybe 3 a.m., getting up at 8 to drive maybe five hours somewhere else and then load in, hopefully dinner, then a show.
O'Hanley: It would be nice to schedule a week in Glasgow or something like that, just to do it.
MTV News: You mention Glasgow. Any particular reason?
O'Hanley: That's kind of our spiritual mecca for us. Just punch for punch, how many great bands come out of Glasgow is insane. And disparate bands! Boards of Canada, Teenage Fanclub, Jesus and Mary Chain, you name it. It's insane, and it's beautiful. And the girls [in our band] are from "New Scotland." Nova Scotia. They learned Scottish Gaelic growing up, and I'm part Scottish.
MTV News: As you were making the album, you gave some influences and hints to what the album might sound like, that it might be faster or more aggressive. Did that hold up through the process? Did your inspirations change?
Rankin: I feel like that question was commonly asked while we were still touring, and I was like, ack, when are we gonna make this record? What can I say that actually won't just label the record we never made yet? And so I was making up these very vague adjectives that don't really describe it.
O'Hanley: I'm guilty of that as well.
Rankin: "It's faster!" I think originally when we tried to record some of the songs, they were coming out a little bit too muscular, and it ended up making things sound a little anemic. So we didn't realize that until we had gotten home and were like, uh-uh, we don't really like power chords. And distortion has to be used sparingly. And so I think we needed to get back to where we were familiar with, in terms of how we sound.
MTV News: Visual branding seems extremely important to your band in that it complements your music, that kind of collage-pop. How essential is it to you in planning?
O'Hanley: That's a big part of being a band in our books, is having a coherent visual output as well. We don't think of it as a brand ever. It's more of an aesthetic, but it's the same. It's tricky. It takes us a while to settle on something we dig, both of us, and involves a not inconsiderate amount of chopping, cutting, pasting, screwing.
Rankin: We also come from, I would describe it as a scene on Prince Edward Island, where Alec is from. I moved over there years ago just to be part of the music scene there, and everyone did everything themselves: show posters, album art. We just sort of learned that. So I couldn't even fathom someone just bringing an image to us with a stock font and being like, how about this? It's just not an option to us. I mean, I wish it were [laughs].
MTV News: How long did it take you to decide on what this album art would be?
Rankin: All the way until the day before the album art was due. Like, officially last day it could possibly be submitted. We just drove to the library, which we had been visiting weekly, combing through old stuff that we liked, old magazines in the stacks, got University of Toronto student cards, scammed our way into that.
O'Hanley: Our bass player, Brian, went to U of T for jazz guitar, and then basically, so we could go, I posed as Brian. I borrowed his ID and renewed his university ID so that I could flash it and the person at the desk would go, "Yeah, whatever," and we fleeced our way in.